Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why" Black Lives Matter" matters to me.

Black Lives Matter began in July 2013 as a hashtag #blacklivesmatter in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2011.  It gained national attention in 2014 with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.  While there is a national organization of sorts, BLM is best described as a “decentralized network of activists with no formal hierarchy.” (Wikipedia) For me and many others, however, the phrase is a simple expression of a powerful truth:  All human lives matter.  When I see or hear these words, I think of the Old Testament prophets speaking out against injustice.  I think of the Psalms crying out for mercy and justice.  

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear grief in my soul,
    have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy prevail over me?  Psalm 13

Since I believe this, I am forced to speak out when there is clear evidence that some lives do not matter.

How we treat our neighbor is not a zero-sum game.  It is a false proposition that we can only value some lives at the expense of other lives.  When I hear people respond to BLM by asking about “blue lives,” or “white lives,” or “unborn lives,” I think, “That’s exactly right.”  All lives matter and so too should black lives, not instead of other lives but just like other lives.  Black lives should matter just as much as white lives but, in fact, they do not.

Like many white people I was disposed to view the disturbing string of deaths of black citizens as isolated incidents each of which seemed to have extenuating circumstances.  In other words I was disposed toward the status quo.  All that changed with the homicide of George Floyd.  The video of an officer sworn to protect and serve casually killing a citizen who posed no threat to himself, the officer or bystanders lives vividly and disturbingly in my memory.  When the EMT crew arrived, they dragged Floyd’s lifeless body as though he was roadkill.  They acted with the assurance and arrogance of impunity.  Because of a 17-year-old girl and her cell phone, the entire world has been able to witness this tragic interaction between police and citizen in a country which most of the world sees as a beacon of liberty.  I was horrified at what I saw, not because it has not happened before but because this time it was blatant, out in the open, and undeniable.  I do not want this done in my name, not ever. 

I also realized that this had happened too often in the past several years to view it as an isolated incident; there is a systemic problem that goes well beyond individual police officers.  I want to believe that most police officers would condemn this and other instances of excessive force but this abuse of power may be more common than we know.  Unfortunately, the lack of comprehensive and transparent information on police use of force makes it difficult to know for sure.  We do know that as the interaction between militarized police and demonstrators increased, the acts of violence also increased.  Things got worse, not better.

I believe this is not just about individual police officers who have acted illegally.  We ask those sworn to serve and protect us to do so in a society awash with guns of all kinds so that even a simple traffic stop can erupt into deadly gunfire.  We ask them to serve in a society with endemic racism which has become more visible in the last three years.  We ask them to protect us in a society riven by polarizing political differences that our political leaders have exacerbated rather than diminished.  We ask them to provide public safety in a society in which social and economic inequality has increased and predictably resulted in social and health dysfunctions.  We must begin to deal with these systemic problems.

The fact that George Floyd was a black man has underscored the racial issues involved in policing.  As a white man, I have never experienced what it is like to view police as dangerous protagonists.  However, I have no doubt that what my black friends say about their experience is valid and true.   I have never had to have “the talk” with my children but if I or they were black, it would be irresponsible not to.  This is a deeply sad situation.

All this has happened during a pandemic which has impacted black and brown people and communities more severely than white people and communities.  Clearly income and economic inequality drives much of this impact, but that inequality is also driven by racism against people of color.  To be poor is one thing but to be poor because of your race is a death sentence.  

All this matters to me because I try to live my life as a follower of Jesus Christ.  He accepted and welcomed all, no matter their circumstances.  He was particularly concerned about those on the margins, the “nobodies,” the excluded, the different.  His Kingdom was for all and still is.  His earliest followers lived their lives as expressions of that fundamental equality.  No one was to count more than any other.  All lives mattered to him but he gave special attention to those whose lives the “powers that be” devalued.  So, I believe, must we.

Friday, July 17, 2020

George Edward Pickett: Is Fort Pickett a good idea?

Fort Pickett was established in 1942 as Camp Pickett.  It has been in more or less continuous use since then.  It was initially home to the 79th Infantry Division but has served many purposes and army units since then.  It is currently used by Virginia National Guard and Air Guard units.  It was named for George Edward Pickett.  The fort's website tells us that "the name was chosen to honor Richmond, Virginia native Major General George E. Pickett, whose ill-fated charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during the US Civil War, holds a unique place in the history of warfare." 

 Almost 80 years later does it make sense to name a military facility after a general who led troops against the United States and its soldiers? I am distantly related to General Pickett and I want to tell you something about his background and my thinking on the issue.  I will conclude that I think it was a bad idea in 1942 and an even worse one today.  

My reasoning has nothing to do with the fact that he and his family were owners of enslaved people.  This is a sad and disturbing fact about my ancestors on my father's side of the family.  Even the branch of the family that left Virginia for Kentucky and then Missouri, my home state, brought enslaved persons with them.  They came to Missouri precisely because it was a state in which slavery was permitted through the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers owned enslaved persons.  Whether or not the abominable practice of chattel slavery ought to cancel out the achievements of these men is a different question from the one I will discuss here.

George Edward Pickett graduated last in his class from Westpoint and served in the United States Army until the outbreak of the Civil War.  He resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army.  He quickly rose to the rank of Major General, a divisional commander, and demonstrated over and over again that he was well beyond his competence.  He is best known for the final decisive battle at Gettysburg that bears his name, Pickett's Charge.  Known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy, it marked the turning point in the war and the beginning of the end for the Army of Virginia.  The Fort Pickett website delicately describes this as holding a "unique place in the history of warfare."

As a boy and young man growing up in Missouri, I remember my Pickett relatives talking about "The General" with the pride that comes from a family relationship.  Pickett's wife and widow, La Salle (Sally) Corbell Pickett, was a prolific though minor novelist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Her work was part of the Lost Cause literature.  "According to Lost Cause writers, the Civil War did not start because of slavery, secession was a constitutional right, Confederate generals were knightly heroes, and the South only lost because it was outmanned and outgunned."  (Wikipedia)

From "The Heart of a

I read the first of her twelve books, "Pickett and His Men" (1899) and believed her depiction of George as possessing "the greatest capacity for happiness and such dauntless courage and self-control that, to all appearances, he could as cheerfully and buoyantly steer his way over the angry, menacing, tumultuous surges of life as over the waves that glide in tranquil smoothness and sparkle in the sunlight of a calm, clear sky." Her depiction of George as "gallant and graceful as a knight of chivalry riding to a tournament" was the epitome of the Lost Cause romanticization of the rebellion to retain the practice of chattel slavery in the United States. 

I'm sure you heard that "history is written by the winners."  However, in terms of the American imagination about the Civil War, this was reversed.  It was the South's version that most of the country bought into.  It even found its way into mainstream history books which taught that the war wasn't about slavery but states rights and economics.  That narrative conveniently never pointed out that the rebel states wanted to retain the rights to own other human beings which was essential to the economics of the South.  In his biography of General Grant, Ron Chernow quotes General James Longstreet--Robert E. Lee's "old warhorse"--"I never heard of any other cause of the quarrel than slavery."
There were enough statements by the leadership of the Confederacy to establish the goal of the rebellion.  It was indisputably to maintain the institution of chattel slavery.  The Vice-President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, put the matter plainly.  The Confederacy was based on “…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”

Writing in the Atlantic Ta-Nihis Coates observes the obvious:  "Thus in 1861, when the Civil War began, the Union did not face a peaceful Southern society wanting to be left alone. It faced an aggressive power, a Genosha, an entire society based on the bondage of a third of its residents, with dreams of expanding its fields of the bondage further South. It faced the dream of a vast American empire of slavery. In January of 1861, three months before the Civil War commenced, Florida secessionists articulated the position directly:

 'At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of the Government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige or right growing out of property in slaves.'"
Frederick Douglass
The Lost Cause literature sought to obfuscate the obvious.  It presented a genteel southern life with cultured gentlemen, beautiful women, obedient children and happy--yes, HAPPY--enslaved persons.  Slavery had elevated them from their natural circumstances into a world of care and concern by generous and thoughtful owners.  This was the view of slavery perpetuated by that literature.  Other literature, generally not read by the white population, presented a different picture.  Read the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northrup's 
memoir "12 Years a Slave" to gain a true picture of what chattel slavery was really like.  The image of George E. Pickett that I experienced in Missouri came from that Southern propaganda.

So let's be clear.  Upon his graduation from West Point and his commissioning,  Pickett took an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.  He decided to join the rebellion of the Confederacy and then served in the resulting war that took 750,000 American lives.  Eight percent of all white males age 13 through 43 died including a devastating 18 percent of that age group in the South.  This war to preserve the right to own other human beings was not a benign effort to preserve a genteel way of life.  It was an assault on justice in defense of white supremacy and Pickett was a leader in that effort.

All of that is horrid enough but there is more.   After the disaster of Gettysburg, Pickett was eventually placed in command of the Department of North Carolina.  When the war began, the available trained North Carolina troops were sent to Virginia to protect Richmond, the Confederate capital.  Home guard units were organized in North Carolina but little attention was paid to defending against Union invasions.  In 1862 the Union forces attacked and took control of New Bern, an important port on the Neuse River with direct access to the Atlantic. From the beginning of the war, many North Carolinians held Union sympathies and did not support succession.  Many of these enlisted in home guard units rather than join the Confederate Army.  As the recruiting pressure mounted even to impressment gangs, they presented themselves to Union forces and enlisted.  In almost all cases, they were never part of the Confederate army.

In 1864 with his division still recovering from its mauling at Cemetary Ridge, Pickett was ordered to retake New Berne.  As with most of his endeavors in the Civil War, he and his troops were not successful.  Most historians lay the blame at his failure to prepare, organize and properly deploy his troops.  However, he did capture more than 200 Union soldiers from a relief column that the Confederates surprised.  Included in these 200 were 22 Union soldiers whom Pickett ordered hanged, claiming they were Confederate Army deserters.  Both Pickett and General Robert E. Lee advocated executions for deserters to stem the hemorrhaging of their troops, particularly in the last two years of the war.  While a few of those executed might have come from Confederate units, most were North Carolinians with Union sentiments who joined the Union units in their area.  When the war ended, Pickett was under investigation for this action as a war crime.  He and his family fled to Montreal in fear of those charges.  He returned to the United States only when granted a promise of non-prosecution at the urging of General Grant, a classmate at West Point and fellow soldier during the Mexican War.

Full disclosure:  I am related to Pickett.  We share a common ancestor:  William Pickett (1700-1766.)  He was my 5th Great Grandfather and George's Great Grandfather.  This makes us second cousins four times removed.  A slight but verified relationship.  In light of the foregoing information, it makes little sense to me to continue with the name Fort Pickett.  It perpetuates an idea that somehow the Civil War wasn't that bad and that those who led it are worthy of emulation.  I think George Edward Pickett V summed up my position:

“I support removal of all statues commemorating and celebrating the Southern Confederates in public locations. They should be permanently removed and either destroyed or sunk in the ocean for a fishing/diving reef: the Graveyard of the Confederacy.

“As to the statues on battlefields, such as Gettysburg, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are represented, it is my opinion that they serve a valid historical purpose in that context, where people can learn about history and the terrible consequences when people refuse to treat all people as equal.”
I think the same applies to all ten bases named for Confederate generals.  While some of them may have been better military leaders than Pickett, they still fought against the United States to protect the institution of slavery.  We should not memorialize these men and set them as examples to others.  All ten are located in states that rebelled.  Their existence perpetuates a view of the Civil War as it was depicted in the Lost Cause.  Statues of these and other Confederate leaders that dot the landscape of the southern United States are not only part of that interpretation effort but also reflect the white supremacy politics of the era of their erection:  the second rise of the Klu Klux Klan in the early 20th Century and the opposition to full civil rights for black Americans in the sixties and seventies.  These monuments were not historical statements about the Civil War but contemporary statements to the descendants of enslaved persons that they were still under the heel of the Old South and its politics of enslavement.  

We all need to remember the history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and the fight against equality and justice.  This is not best done by heroic statues honoring those who engaged in and supported those efforts.  It is best done by honest and complete interpretative material in battlegrounds, museums, school curricula and celebrations.  The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte is a fine example of how this can be done.  In a statement reflecting on nationwide reaction to the murder of George Floyd, the head of the museum wrote these words:  
None of us at Levine Museum pretends to have the answer, but what we do know is that healing begins with history.  If you do not understand the history that got us to this place, then you will not make a difference.  If you don’t know the history, then you are not talking about the right things or addressing the right questions.  
Levine Museum of the New South connects the past with the present to realize the promises of a New South – a place of justice and equity and opportunity for all.  We use history to build community. 
Indeed, let us use history to build community.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Take a pledge to reduce racial polarization

I am asking each of you to take a pledge to reduce racial polarization.  I believe that this or something very similar is the only way to begin to address the issues that have become so apparent to the white majority in the past three months.  I want to share my thoughts about why this is the time for action.  The text of the pledge is at the end of this blog post.  If you prefer to listen to a podcast, click here.

We find ourselves at a critical point in our national history.  Through a concurrence of events--COVID-19, the chilling, cold-blooded murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the hunting down and murdering of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the police assault with a no-knock warrant that ended with the bullet-ridden body of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and the militarized police response to peaceful protests particularly in our nation's capital--Americans seem to have come, finally, to a recognition of the damage done to us all by the 400-year tradition of racism in America.  

Demonstrations have taken place in more than 60 countries on all continents except Antarctica.  In the United States, the demonstrations are unprecedented in scope and size.  Since May 26 there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations.  The estimate of the number of participants ranges from 15 to 26 million.  Self-reported participation may well be exaggerated but if the number is only 7 to 13 million it dwarfs the number of participants in the civil rights marches during the sixties.  According to the NY Times demonstration database and the Crowd Counting
Consortium database, "m
ore than 40 percent of counties in the United States — at least 1,360 — have had a protest. Unlike past Black Lives Matter protests, nearly 95 percent of counties that had a protest recently are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white."  Mainline organizations almost immediately lent their support in both words and actions.  The National Football League and NASCAR are two of the most significant.  Political action has already taken place in New York state and city, Minneapolis and several other jurisdictions. 

It is not overblown to say that a tipping point has been reached.  People of all races and socioeconomic levels have heard something and they don't like it.  They are demanding their government at all levels take action to change.  If governmental leaders don't hear them or ignore them, they will change those leaders.  And this is as it should be.

But let's be honest.  Legal and administrative changes are important and necessary but they are not sufficient.  Didn't we learn that lesson with Brown v the Topeka Board of Education?  We can declare separate but equal to be unconstitutional but unless people's hearts change, the problem will remain and even get worse.  White flight from the urban core cities left behind school systems effectively segregated and chronically underfunded to educate a lower socioeconomic clientele.  Hearts don't change because laws change; hearts change through relationships.  

The changes in the legal status of LGBTQ Americans followed changes in attitudes of people toward people whose sexual orientation was different than theirs.  As more people discovered that family members, valued colleagues, friends, and even celebrities were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender, they realized that their sexual orientation didn't define them.  The opposition to the constitutional and legal rights of LGBTQ people evaporated in a remarkably short time.  Unless, of course, race entered the equation.  White people began to accept white LGBTQ people.  That acceptance came through relationships.  The same can happen with race relations but it has to come through personal relationships.  I know in my own case my heart has been changed from the relationships I had with people who are different from me in sexual orientation and in race.  If the only people I ever had meaningful relationships with were white, straight males and females, I would not be the person I am today.

I know that many of you understand the damage that systemic racism has done to America and Americans--all Americans.  I know that many of you have taken action in your private and public lives to work for change and justice.  These
recent events have an unsettling message for us:  no matter how much we have done, it has not been enough.  We have to do more if we hope to come close to realizing the ideals on which America was founded:  That all people are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That's why I am renewing my commitment to a Pledge to Reduce Racial Polarization in My Neighborhood and Community and I invite you to do the same.  This pledge is adapted from a pledge developed and promoted by the Urban League of Rochester in 1992.  (I was privileged to serve as a board member and chair of the membership committee of the Rochester Urban League.)  The structural and procedural changes needed in this moment are beyond any individual's scope of responsibility.  We can and should pressure our elected officials to enact needed reforms in program and funding.  But we--each of us--need to take action in our own sphere.  I encourage each of us to commit to this pledge.  I think it is particularly important to reach out to people of color in our neighborhoods, social organizations, workplaces, and other networks and to have honest conversations about race in America.  For me as a white male, this means more listening and less talking.  This is how hearts are changed.

Pledge to Reduce Racial Polarization in my Neighborhood and Community

  • I will not engage in racial polarization and will intervene when others do.

  • I will identify and implement specific actions to improve race relations in my neighborhood and community.

  • I will reach out to neighbors, friends or colleagues of a different race and have honest conversations about race based on our personal experiences.

  • I will publicize my pledge to my network of family, friends and colleagues and bring it to the attention of organizations of which I am a part.

I want to live in a community where people

·         Accept all cultural, religious and racial heritages rather than fighting them.

·         Use language that unites rather than divides.

·         Reach out to neighbors rather than avoid those who are different.

·         Learn about others who appear different rather than believe and accept stereotypes.

·         Organize, educate and encourage others to eliminate all forms of racism rather than just live with it.

·         Object to racial jokes rather than listen to or laugh at them.

·         Speak out against racism rather than passively observe it.

·         Refuse to use any form of racially derogatory language rather than accept it as part of my vocabulary.


William L Pickett     Henrietta NY   July 3, 2020   585-732-1832

This an adaptation of a pledge developed by the Urban League of Rochester NY in 1992.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

What I have learned during the pandemic - Part 2

This is the second of two posts on what I learned during the pandemic.  You can read about the first five in Part 1 of this blog post.

6. Racism continues to be a central issue for America

W. E. B.  Du Bois
In 1903 W. E. B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”  COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis remind all of us that this statement is also true of 21st Century America.  The infection and death rates of Covid-19 are disproportionally high for black and brown communities.  This is not because of any inherent characteristics of these communities and people but because of the disproportionate rate of poverty of these groups.  The pandemic has brought into shocking visibility the lethal combination of racism and poverty in this country.  In biology a specimen is often stained with dye so the structure and features show up more clearly under a microscope.  The pandemic has been such a dye for the social, economic and health disparities in our country.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer was captured in a chilling video.  It has left indelible impressions in our minds and hearts.  We white people can see unmistakably what our fellow black and brown citizens have been telling us for decades, even centuries.  We now can understand that all those previous instances of black people dying at the hands of police were not exaggerations.  In fact, all those separate incidents are not separate at all but expressions of systemic issues with our policing agencies reflecting the systemic issues in our communities.  This time, perhaps, enough is enough.

7. National leadership is abominable while state leaders shine.

I have developed a new appreciation for the leadership at state and local levels.  Given the disarray at the federal level, I along with most others have turned to our local and state leaders for information and guidance as we live during this pandemic.  I am fortunate to live in New York where Governor Cuomo has risen to the occasion.  His daily news briefings have been consistent, coherent, and based on information.  He has also been more self-disclosive than I have ever experienced him.  His reflections on his family and his personal feelings have helped me connect with him as a person not just as a political official.  This has been repeated in many other states as governors have stepped into the leadership void.  I have also experienced this at the local county level.  Governors and county executives care about us in ways that the national leadership does not appear to.

8. Solitude is not all bad.

It turns out that I have never been a big fan of constant social interaction.  My professional life was spent interacting with people constantly.  However, my leisure activities were all solitary:  photography (capturing, developing and printing images), reading, writing, hiking, walking/running, and web site development.  With the pandemic, I have more time to do these very things and do not miss social interaction as much as others.

9. I have upped my cooking game with Ninja Foodi Deluxe

Typically, I cook dinner.  I got into that habit when I had retired, and Marilyn was still working.  It was a way of lightening her load a bit but also allowed me to set the time for dinner rather than have it vary depending on Marilyn.  I like to eat between 6 and 6:30 and cooking, which I like, was not any price at all to pay to ensure that.  Once Marilyn retired, she began to do some more cooking but I probably did more than she did.  My meals have been pretty basic and prepared quickly.  With the Ninja Foodi Deluxe, I have been doing more complicated recipes that often include sauces.  So far I have done the following:  several salmon dinners with tasty sauces, braised short ribs, jambalaya, pineapple upside-down cake, berry upside-down cake, seared scallops and pearled couscous, chicken and fried rice,  chicken and dirty rice and more.  So far I am having a lot of fun and Marilyn is enjoying the food.  Come to think of it, this reminds me of a certain fence getting whitewashed in Hannibal Missouri.

10. My sleep has improved

In some ways, this has been the most surprising.  Ove a year ago I decided to focus on getting at least seven and a half hours of sleep a night. That means that I would need to be in bed for at least eight and a half hours since I typically am awake about an hour a night, according to Fitbit.  The key is going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time.  Before the pandemic, that would work for most nights but if we went out for the evening, I was rarely able to get back home in time to hit my target of between nine and nine-thirty.  Now I can because we are not going out.  If I go to bed between nine and nine-thirty and get up around six, I can routinely get my goal.  In addition, the Fitbit gives me all sorts of information on the quality of that sleep.  This encourages me to stick to my routine so I get a “good grade” in the morning when I sync with the app.

11. Zoom, zoom

I have joined most Americans and have spent a lot of time on Zoom.  It was novel at first but now has settled into a routine.  I have regularly scheduled zoom calls with friends, my siblings, and my children.  The pandemic has meant that the interaction has increased with my siblings and children.  Plus interacting with both as groups has added an element that would otherwise never be the case.  The conversations cover all sorts of topics.  There is natural storytelling and reminiscing about our times together.  But we also talk about current issues.  It is a constant pleasure for me to listen to my children expressing their views about what is going on in their worlds.  Each of the seven is a fully developed individual with their own ideas, experiences and families.  They don't necessarily agree on issues but they express affection and respect for their brothers and sisters.

I have learned or come to an awareness of many other things as well but these are the ones that are the most significant.

What I have learned during the pandemic - Part 1

In the over three months that I have restricted my life because of the pandemic, I have learned a lot about myself and others.  Here are the first five things I learned.  There are another six in Part 2 of this blog.

1. The clown car national administration is incapable of keeping us safe.

This was not that much of a surprise, but still.  Specifically I mean the top political leadership.  This ramshackle collection of politically correct top leadership is supported by a honeycomb of acting deputies.  None of these are particularly adept at their jobs but they understand their audience and their clientele.  And it’s not us!  They are in their jobs because they tell Trump what he wants to hear.  Ideologically most of them are hell-bent on reducing or destroying the civilian agencies they lead.  Of course, it made no sense to them to continue the work of the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  This office was established after the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to marshal the resources of the federal government to be ready for the next epidemic or pandemic.  It was as if the captain of the Titanic was hobnobbing with wealthy passengers with no one on the bridge.  “We haven’t hit an iceberg yet and besides this ship is unsinkable.”

When we did hit the inevitable iceberg, no one was in charge.  Valuable time was lost while rookies tried to understand what was going on.  They were getting briefed by “experts”—the very people they had spent three years belittling and undercutting.  Once they understood the danger, they lost even more time trying to convince the captain to leave the lights and adulation of the ballroom and focus on a clear and present danger.  Once he began to grasp what had happened and what was about to happen, he began to make sure that no one blamed him.  Famously, he finally said that “I am not responsible for anything.”  Stirring words as we began to sink into the frigid North Atlantic.  If he had been the captain of the Titanic, we all know that he would not have gone down with his ship but would have found a way to bully his way into a lifeboat and leave most of us behind.

It is sad that we have a president who is incapable of leadership, especially sad when we need leadership desperately.  More about that later.

2. Epidemiology

I have learned a lot about epidemiology.  Here is a list of the terms I now know but of which I had been unaware two months ago.

  • SARS CoV 2:  The name of the virus that is spreading throughout the world.  Full name:  Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.
  • COVID-19:  The disease caused by SARS CoV-2
  • R₀:  Infection rate:  How many people single infected person in turn infects.  “Epidemiological studies estimate each infection results in 1.4 to 3.9 new ones when no members of the community are immune and no preventive measures are taken.”  (Wikipedia)  Public health measures (social distancing, masks, and handwashing) attempt to reduce R₀ to less than 1.
  • Semi log graph:  Not sure I actually understand this but it gives a better picture of the rate of infection.
  • Ventilators:  Breathing machines required when a patient cannot provide enough oxygen on his or her own.
  • Face masks:  These are worn to protect others by reducing the free flow of water particles with normal breathing and especially coughing.
  • N95:  These facemasks are worn by health care workers and other front line workers to protect themselves from infected people.
  • PPE:  Personal protective equipment
  • Social distancing:  Staying at least six feet away from other people except those with whom you share a home.
  • Herd immunity:  a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through vaccination or previous infections, thereby providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune. It appears that 60-70 percent of a population is required for herd immunity which effectively stops the spread of the infection.  As of June 16, the CDC reports 2.1 million cases or less than one percent of U. S. population.  With the public health measures in place to flatten the curve, it will take years rather than months to reach herd immunity.  
  • Vaccine:  A vaccine is a biological preparation that provides active acquired immunity to a particular infectious disease.  While there has been extensive research to develop a vaccine against other coronaviruses—SARS and MERS—none of these were able to successfully emerge from clinical trials and gain licensing.  The World Health Organization said early on that it would take at least 18 months to have a vaccine ready for deployment.  That, of course, assumes that some of those under development will be successful in the clinical trials required for licensing.  18 months would be a record given that the average for vaccine development is more like four years.  This also leaves unanswered how one or possibly two injections will be made available to the global population of 7.8 billion.
3. Being outdoors is better no matter the weather.

In the early 1970s,  I began regular aerobic exercises.  The exact exercise has varied:  running, rope jumping and race walking.  More recently I have been walking four miles a day in an average week at a rapid but not racewalking pace.  During pleasant weather, I would walk outside, sometimes substituting hiking or biking for walking.  If the weather was inclement, I would walk indoors at our local recreation center, YMCA or mall.  The definition of inclement was beginning to expand to include light rain or even coolish weather.  Once the pandemic hit us, the rec center and the YMCA closed and I ventured outside to walk on days when I would normally go inside.  Guess what?  I found that being outdoors was great even if it seemed a little cool even cold or was raining a bit.  There was something about being in the fresh air especially feeling a breeze that really turns on my endorphins.  Now as the Y and the rec center are beginning to open, I find them much less appealing.  Whenever possible I try to do my walking outside as long as the footing is safe.

4. Exercise bands are not as good as machines at the YMCA.

Weight lifting was the other part of my regular workouts.  Nothing extreme but just enough to keep what muscles I had functioning.  Our YMCA has a full set of E-Gym equipment and I quickly became addicted to them.  I made sure that I worked out on the machines three times a week.  Their technology ensures I am doing the exercise correctly and gradually increases the weight as I get stronger.  The real kicker was an estimate of my biological age based on muscle strength.  I was able to get mine down to 50!  You can see why I was addicted.  That is all in the past and  I probably won’t be using them for some months more.  Two months into the shutdown, I bought a set of exercise bands and began to use them but it as just not the same.  I keep asking them what my biological age is but get no response.  Without that kind of re-enforcement, I just can’t tolerate the boredom of using them.

5. There is even more to watch on TV than I thought.

Other than the occasional national network news, we haven’t watched network television for months.  Before we left for Florida, I got a great deal from Spectrum and we decided to try cable again.  We added HBO Go to our other services:  Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix.  We can also stream PBS shows.  We were avid moviegoers and will be again but television and streaming are more than enough for us right now.  We are using a Roku so no wires.  Here are some of the shows we have been watching, both series and movies:

a. A Hidden Life
b. Tiger King
c. Dead to Me
d. Succession
e. Westworld
f. My Brilliant Friend
g. Veep
h. Silicon Valley
i. Ozark
j. Bosch
k. Unorthodox

I learned a lot more during the pandemic and you can read about those in Part 2 of this blog.

Monday, June 8, 2020

George Floyd

The tragedy of the homicide of George Floyd has triggered demonstrations throughout the United States and indeed the world.  There have been similar moments during my 80 years of life but somehow this time it feels different.  We may be witnessing the beginning of a significant change in American life.  I hope so.  I think most Americans feel that enough is enough and now is the time to begin to make changes.  Not just in policing but in other areas as well.  Today I heard Governor Cuomo say essentially that.  This is the time to "carpe momentum," to seize the moment.

Marilyn and I spent the weekend working out our feelings and ideas about this moment.  We did not feel comfortable going to any demonstration so we decided to express our view directly to our elected officials on the town, county, state and federal levels.  We did not waste paper or postage sending anything to the President which is sad but realistic.  Here is that letter.

As an about to be 80-year-old male and 69-year-old female, we have not been participating in the demonstrations occasioned by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  However, we do not want our absence from these demonstrations to silence our voices.  And so we write to you as one of our elected officials to ask you, what actions are you going to take to address four issues:  police violence, guns, racism and economic inequality?
The video of an officer sworn to protect and serve almost casually killing a citizen who posed no threat to himself, the officer or bystanders lives vividly and disturbingly in our memories.  When the EMT crew arrived, they dragged Floyd’s lifeless body as though he was roadkill.  They acted with the assurance and arrogance of impunity.  Because of a 17-year-old girl and her cell phone, the entire world has been able to witness this tragic interaction between police and citizen in a country which most of the world sees as a beacon of liberty.  We were horrified at what we saw, not because it has not happened before but because this time it was blatant, out in the open, and undeniable.  We do not want this done in our name, not ever.  
We also know that this has happened too often in the past several years to view it as an isolated incident; there is a systemic problem that goes well beyond individual police officers.  We want to believe that most police officers would condemn this and other instances of excessive force but this abuse of power may be more common than we know.  Unfortunately, the lack of comprehensive and transparent information on police use of force makes it difficult to know for sure.  We do know that as the interaction between militarized police and demonstrators increased, the acts of violence also increased and have made things worse, not better.
We believe this is not just about individual police officers who have acted illegally.  We ask those sworn to serve and protect us to do so in a society awash with guns of all kinds so that even a simple traffic stop can erupt into deadly gun fire.  We ask them to serve in a society with endemic racism which has become more visible in the last three years.  We ask them to protect us in a society riven by polarizing political differences which our political leaders have exacerbated rather than diminished.  We ask them to provide public safety in a society in which social and economic inequality has increased and predictably resulted in social and health disfunctions.  Beyond the need for justice in the Floyd case, we must begin to deal with these systemic problems
The fact that George Floyd was a black man has underscored the racial issues involved in policing.  As a white couple, we have never experienced what it is like to view police as dangerous protagonists.  However, we have no doubt that what our few black friends say about their experience is valid and true.   We have never had to have “the talk” with our children but if we or they were black, it would be irresponsible not to.  This is a deeply sad situation.
All this has happened during a pandemic which has impacted black and brown people and communities more severely than white people and communities.  Clearly income and economic inequality drives much of this impact, but that inequality is also driven by racism against people of color.  To be poor is one thing but to be poor because of your race is a death sentence.  
Police violence, gun ownership and control, racism and economic inequality are the foremost issues confronting our community.  Our national administration is incapable of providing any leadership—let alone “mature” leadership as General Mattis termed it.  As with the coronavirus, it is up to others to step forward and provide that leadership.
I ask that you publicly acknowledge these issues and describe the actions you will take to begin to address them.  Please do not suggest that we need to study these issues before we begin to change things.  There have been more than enough commissions and reports on these topics.  Recommendations have been made but rarely has there been the follow through required to change cultures and outcomes.  We ask you along with other elected officials to commit to concrete steps to begin the address these core issues.  
Governor Walz of Minnesota said, “I don’t think we get another chance to fix this.  I really don’t.”  This time must be the last time and you must step forward to provide the leadership we all need.  You will have our support in whatever way we can as you do this.
There are already initiatives underway in New York with state legislation to address some of the policing issues but more needs to be done in other areas.  The governor has publicly spoken of these issues and we look forward to actions to match his words.  At the federal level, Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that will address some of the policing issues.  But again, much more remains to be addressed.  And simply introducing legislation, while a good step, does not change anything.  We intend to keep ourselves informed about these developments and to communicate our thoughts directly to our representatives.  Little or nothing has been done at the local level to recognize these issues and to respond with actions.  Again we will keep ourselves informed.

I encourage you to examine your own views on these issues of police violence, guns, racism and inequality.  I also encourage you to write those ideas down so you can communicate them to others.  To do that, however, you will need to do more than Tweets or Facebook posts.  It takes time and thought to work out your thoughts in a longer form but the exercise can help you think more clearly about what you really want to say.  I encourage you not to get caught in the trap of responding to others.  Focus on how you really feel and think about these issues.  It will be a rewarding process even if you never share the results.  But finally I encourage you to do exactly that.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many characteristics of effective leaders

This is the third of three posts on leadership.  In the first, I wrote about my definition of leadership and in the second about the role of power in leadership.  In this one, I will be reflecting on the characteristics of effective leaders.  I defined leadership as influencing the behavior of other people in a way that fully respected their freedom and autonomy.  This may not be everyone's definition but it is the one that I have concluded best describes leadership, the kind of leadership we are sorely missing today.  People in formal leadership positions have the power to influence others based on the authority and prerogatives delegated to them by the organization.  But everyone has personal power bases deriving from their personal characteristics and capacities.  In general reliance on positional power alone is not an effective long term strategy for effective leadership.

Leadership has probably never been more important to our organizations and communities than it is today.  Our ability to take collaborative action has become central to our social and economic health.  Our notion of a leader as a strong individual who knows best, makes crucial decisions, and tells others what to do, is no longer consistent with our understandings of human behavior and our values of human dignity and freedom.  Our society’s mistrust of authority should not be confused with a mistrust of leaders.  We do and should mistrust leaders who do not respect our freedom and instead rely on authority, power, and manipulation.  We do and should mistrust leaders who are more interested in their personal success rather than the common good.  Our realization that leaders do not necessarily act in our best interests has made us less compliant to exercises of authority and more needful of true leadership.

Characteristics of Effective Leadership

Given these new realities, what can we say about true leaders, those who influence our behavior while fully respecting our freedom?  After four years of listening to graduate students reflect on their experience and to the leaders who shared their experience with us, I came to the following conclusions about the characteristics of leaders.  Think they are even more relevant today.

Leaders respect the dignity and worth of each follower

Two behaviors are key to this.  First, such leaders do everything possible to reduce status differentials in groups and communities.  Status based on socioeconomic factors and job titles can probably never be eliminated from human groups, but leaders must work to de-emphasize those differentials rather than emphasize them.  Second, leaders must make clear by their behavior that they value and respect all followers, especially those who are less powerful, less healthy, less educated, younger, older, poorer, less skillful in communication, and different in race, language, religion, gender or sexual orientation from the majority.

No leader can successfully influence the behavior of other people unless they trust the leader.  The cornerstone of that trust is the confirmed belief that the leader values each follower and is guided by what is fair to all.

Leaders are learners.

They learn from success, but they especially learn from their failures to which they freely admit.  Leaders are constantly searching for the truth; they are open to reality even when that reality does not accord with their notions of what reality is or ought to be.  They can see things as they are and they are not frightened of the change which that view of reality will cause in their own thinking.  Leaders are not ideologues, though dictators typically are.

Leaders empower their followers.

The simplest way to understand the notion of empowerment is to appreciate that everyone in a group or community exercises leadership - not just the formal leader.  This occurs in an environment in which leadership is not seen solely as something which the elites do to the rest, but in which everyone can legitimately exercise influence over others.  Leaders must work diligently to create such a climate and to arrange the group or societal processes to nurture the leadership potential of all members, especially those who might be traditionally excluded from leadership.  This is not as much a question of sharing power as it is of developing the capacity of each follower to influence the behavior of others.  If empowerment is only seen as sharing power, one is acting out of a model of leadership that relies on coercion and manipulation because leaders can only share their positional power.

Leaders have a vision of how things can be different and better.

By definition, leaders are concerned about change.  If one is trying to influence the behavior of another, one does so out of some dissatisfaction with the current or likely behavior of the other.  One seeks to change that person’s behavior.  The direction and content of leadership behavior must be guided by a vision of how things can be not just different but better.  That vision of how things can be better must have the following characteristics.  There must be an authenticity about the vision based on a clear consistency with the leader’s own personal values - not just espoused values, but values which can be clearly seen in the leader’s personal behavior.  That vision must be clearly communicated in both the words and the personal behavior of the leader.  That vision must be drawn from the values of the followers.  That vision must draw people together around the fundamental values which give meaning to the lives of the individual members.  A charismatic leader is not someone who creates a vision and then uses it to lead people, but rather someone who draws on the values and meanings of the followers to articulate a common mission that provides meaning and direction to the group.

Leaders include rather than exclude.

Ken Blanchard, the author of the One Minute Manager, has articulated the reason for inclusion by quoting from a poster in an elementary school.  “None of us is as smart as all of us.”  The individualism that is deep in the American DNA can lead us to think that the important contributions as made by super individuals acting alone.  The reality is that important contributions are made by people working in teams.  The more talented and motivated the members of the team, the more effective is the team's work.  Effective leaders must facilitate the contributions of all followers.  Only in this way will the group or community be able to identify its true interest and goals and be able to work effectively to achieve them.

Leaders do their homework.

Leadership is always task-specific.  Leaders influence other people about specific issues, challenges, behaviors.  To influence other people, therefore, leaders must do their homework on the issues or challenges.  Leaders must develop and understand information on the specific issue and must be aware of the attitudes and positions of those they desire to influence.  Leaders who do not do their homework often are forced to rely on raw authority and coercive power which moves them away from effective leadership.

Effective leaders must be able to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and conflict

The number and rate of cultural and technological changes that characterize our world require leaders whose intellectual outlook and personal character enable them to operate effectively in a confused and conflicted situation.  This ability to act in such situations communicates a sense of confidence and potency to followers.

Idealism and Pragmatism - A Necessary Combination

In short, effective leaders today can be characterized as pragmatic idealists.  They must have a clear sense of values about the importance of all individuals and have the skills and understanding needed to influence the behavior of others while fully respecting their freedom.  It is not enough to be a visionary.  It has often been observed that there is no shortage of people with good, even revolutionary ideas; there is a shortage of people with good ideas who are able and willing to do the hard, pragmatic work of putting those ideas into practice.  If I have a vision of how things ought to be, but I am not willing to engage in the work of leadership - listening, learning, empowering, taking risks, and driving relentlessly for real implementation - I will be irrelevant, a “hopeless idealist,” “a fuzzy-thinking liberal,” or worse.  On the other hand, if I am skillful at implementing ideas without a clear sense of direction, I will become a “technocrat,” able to get things done, but not knowing what things to do or not do.


Never before in my lifetime, I have felt the lack of effective leadership in most areas of our life:  church, business, nonprofit organizations, and government.  As it always is, a crisis highlights the failings of leadership.  As Warren Buffet has wisely observed, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out."  In the church, it was the sexual abuse coverups.  In business, it was the frauds and shady dealings leading up to the Great Recession of 2008.  In the nonprofit world, it was the financial misappropriation of funds and failure to protect children.  In government, it was the pathetic efforts of the clown car Trump administration to protect us from COVID-19.  Americans can and do disagree on politics and government policies but surely all Americans can agree that we deserve competent and effective leadership from those who would present themselves as leaders.  

I believe these characteristics of effective leadership should be the criteria by which we judge those who hold formal leadership positions:

Effective leaders
  1. respect the dignity and worth of individuals
  2. are constantly learning
  3. empower followers and create a culture of leadership
  4. have a vision of how things can be different and better and effectively communicate that vision
  5. include rather than exclude
  6. do their homework
  7. effectively deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and conflict
  8. must be pragmatic idealists
These are the standards of leadership to which we as employees, citizens, members, and clients have a right.  As employees, members, and clients, we very often do not have a voice in the selection of those who would lead us.  But in government we do.  Elections and politics are our ways to have a voice in that selection.  Before we look at policies and partisan issues, we need to look at the quality of the leadership candidates will provide us.   This has never been more important.